Caesar the Moment! Frank Ferrante Returns to TZ

Teatro ZinZanni's Frank Ferrante

Comedian Frank Ferrante returns to the red velvet tent in Teatro ZinZanni’s upcoming all-new show, A Rosa de Rio – The Rose of Rio, opening October 23 and playing through February 15, 2009. We caught up with Frank recently to learn about the creation of his loveable, memorable character, Chef Caesar whom Frank describes as “a poor man’s Ricky Ricardo with a hint of Dean Martin in his spirit.”

What keeps you coming back to Teatro ZinZanni?

I could make the obvious joke…like…”the pay check.” But the truth of the matter is that there are very few outlets for stage comedians to develop their comedy, their sensibility. For the past seven years I have been blessed with a home that allows for experimentation and growth. Early on…those first two years…were all about shaping characters, developing text, constantly cuttting whole routines then replacing them at the next performance. Dropping characters, landing on one that resonates. And most importantly learning how to work an audience without completely offending everyone. Offending some is fine in my book…but not all. A guy has got to eat after all. But that audience work is key and ultimately it is the improvisation with the audience and the band that not only marks the act but has now become the act.

How did Caesar come to life?

I sat down with TZ director Stefan Haves and we discussed in 2001 various types of characters that would work in the tent. I’ve always wanted to play an over the top character, bombastic type who deep down was just completely covering all of his many flaws. In fact, he sometimes flaunts his flaws. There are little things in the cracks of Caesar’s moments at TZ – perhaps he drinks a bit too much, womanizes too much, gambles…there may be other illicit activity. Caesar desperately needs to be loved.  But don’t get too close…he could bite. Or better yet…donkey kick you, crack on egg on your head, express disdain regarding the tassels on your shoes or the t-shirt you chose to wear in our fancy tent. I thought of wanna-be performers, lounge act types, desperate souls. A poor man’s Ricky Ricardo with a hint of Dean Martin in his spirit. I remember sketching the character before anything – the pencil mustache, mole, big hair, sideburns, the lounge suit…and showing Stefan and designer Beaver Bauer what I thought he looked like. The name is borrowed from actor Cesar Romero. All right, it’s stolen from Cesar Romero!

Frank Ferrante as Chef Caesar

Frank Ferrante as Chef Caesar

When you engage with audience members, what do you do to make them feel as comfortable as possible?

You get good after a while recognizing who will play with you and who won’t. Though you never know how any of it will play out. It’s dangerous. The audience senses the danger and risk involved. Stefan taught me a valuable lesson early on. If you are going to tease or insult them in any way, you have to counter with a compliment. Even a backhanded one. Pretty much I can get away with murder with an audience member as long as somewhere during my interaction with them I say, “You’re a beautiful man/woman” or cajole the audience to concur with my assertion that the victim/audience member is “Gorgeous!” I will say that it is never my intention to hurt or draw blood…there is a side of Caesar that is sweet and gentle. I always choose an older woman to be part of the act as Caesar’s “first love.” And I am extremely careful not to offend but still have fun. I carefully gauge the reaction of all my participants. You watch their eyes, their body language, expressions. The bottom line is that you want them to have fun so the audience will have fun.

What do you look for when you choose an member of the audience to play with? (no  trade secrets!)

I like a variety of types. When I have three guys onstage it should look like the United Nations. Different backgrounds, looks, sizes. Enough disparity to allow me to distinguish each exchange. With the ladies…give me young, middle aged  and older. Caesar doesn’t discriminate. I track the audience to see who is laughing, enjoying the show prior to my entrances. Also, if someone looks particularly interesting, I may speak to them in advance to get a handle regarding their personality, mental clarity, mobility, willingness, etc.

The absolutely "radicchio" Chef Caesar.

The absolutely

The new show is called “A Rosa de Rio: The Rose of Rio” and the story, as we understand it so far – we’ll see what happens in rehearsals! – has you smitten by one of the wait staff in your restaurant, a lovely young Brazilian singer, whom you elevate to the role of cabaret singer. It seems like we will get to know more about Caesar the man versus Caesar the “Arugula Guy.” Can you tell us how that feels?

The more I’ve nuanced Caesar over the years in terms of his look, verbal and physical tics, point of view, etc, the more I’ve wanted to show his “at home” side. What the hell does Caesar do behind closed doors, after the show, on a date? What are his hobbies, pet peeves? How does he treat his mommy? Boxers or briefs? In this version I believe we’ll see more of Caesar the lover with a sentimental touch. He’ll croon a duet with Paula Gelly’s character as they re-live their romance of yesterday – including their ritual involving martini time at sunset.

In addition to your roles with Teatro ZinZanni, you have been successfully performing your one-man show about Groucho Marx all over the country, including some recent engagements in Washington State. What keeps you connected to Groucho?

I fell in love with Groucho Marx when I was 9. I’ve played his life onstage from age 15 to 85 in “Groucho: A Life in Revue” in New York, London and on PBS. I still tour with “An Evening With Groucho” regularly. It is said “comedians are truth tellers.” And Groucho was the greatest truth teller. He holds up the mirror to our behavior – our twisted, staid, predictable, absurd behavior. As a kid I knew he was breaking the rules – saying and doing what he wanted and that was exhilarating for a good boy who did all the correct things…but who was aching to bust out. What an alter ego for shy kids everywhere. I try to do the same with Caesar. Make fun of and take down everyone and everything.

What other projects are in the wind.? We know your lovely wife is a playwright. Do you ever collaborate with her on new material?

My wife Amanda and I have worked together maybe 15, 20 times over the past 14 years. We’ve acted onstage, I’ve directed her, she’s directed me. I read her work and at times edit it. She watches my performances and offers constructive criticism and always encourages. We are mutual fans. And through it all…always will be. For me…I would like to continue with my one-man Groucho show, work at Zinzanni…and take Caesar to another medium. Caesar needs to be on television…the next Uncle Milty.

Our Artistic Director Norm Langill has called TZ “summer camp for performers” and  he takes pride in the collaborations with the creative team and the performers that result in keeping the show new and invigorating. Can you comment on this process?

One of the thrills of working at ZinZanni is that you get to know the players. It has become a bit of a repertory company from the onstage performers, musicians, designers, production crew, producers, front of house. One of Norm’s most telling strengths is his ability to listen. And he has to hear a lot from all of us! But he listens and is open to experimentation, changes. I appreciate that he allows the creativity to flow. He facilitates that process. I’ve rarely if ever felt that he was ready to censor or edit me or my work.  People talk about the law of attraction. Norm has created bizarrely wonderful world that attracts a certain breed. I’m proud to be included and grateful.

How do you stay in shape? What’s your regular routine for keeping agile? Are you a trained dancer?

Prior to each performance I do about 15 -20 minutes of light yoga-like stretching. A little vocalizing. After almost 25 years of this, your endurance, stamina are there – physically and mentally. I’ve got iron lungs in the Merman tradition! And I’m relentless…I’m of the ‘never say die’ school of performance. I play each performance as if it’s my last…as if I’m going to have a stroke in the middle of the night and croak. Seriously. I take it seriously. I try to stay completely in the moment in that center ring. Laughter is a big deal to me.

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12 comments on “Caesar the Moment! Frank Ferrante Returns to TZ

  1. Winton Cossel says:

    Dear Frank,

    Thank You for sending me an e-mail about your upcoming show in Seattle.
    I do hope to attend one of them. I have some friends (one of which was with me at your Bellingham “Evening with Groucho” show) who went to see you perform the caesar character and they were absolutely blown away with your performance.

    Hope to see you then.

    Thanks again, you bring great pleasure with your performances during some pretty rough times.

    Bless you,

    – Winton

  2. Blair Palmero Marano says:

    Dear Mr. Funny Pants,

    You make me laugh. I like your mustache and shiny costumes. Must be fun being on stage and TV and stuff. Maybe one day I’ll see you on the Big Screen. Sure hope so.

    Hey, do people ever throw tomatoes at you when you do circus-y things? You probably can duck really quick, though, huh?

    Hove,
    Marc Antony

    ps…. Hail Caesar!

  3. Good luck, Frank. I’m going to e-mail your letter to my friend, Guy. He was one of the founders of Chicago’s Jefferson Award and their 40th anniversary was just celebrated.
    Good luck on your tour. Wish you were coming back towards Ohio. Before I’m too old to remember you. I just turned 74.

  4. Nancy Haistings says:

    Dear Chef Caesar,

    This old gal from Holy Names (last Saturday night) wants to thank you
    for the most entertaining evening I have ever had in my LIFE – I’m not
    exaggerating.

    I can’t begin to imagine how you can play so intimately (for lack of a
    better word) and individually with each individual’s personality.

    Your wit is remarkable – absolutely awesome.

    So – one of these days I hope to see your “Groucho Marx” impersonation.
    He was a favorite – so borderline, direct, a risk taker like you are.
    How can you possibly work all this in. And – one day to see you on
    television.

    Thanks for the “kiss”. The world needs you – we need to laugh at
    ourselves and you bring out the mirror so we can do that.

    Cheers,

    Nancy

  5. Roy & Denise Dodman says:

    Dear Frank,

    We just saw your performance last night in Seattle at Teatro ZinZanni, and
    thought it was fantastic (“I love you Alice”). As Denise and I were reviewing
    your previous work, we noted your Groucho Marx performances, and now really hope to see you in this role one day. If possible, can you provide any appearance information after you leave TZ in February? We’d be happy to travel to any West Coast location for a performance (and perhaps elsewhere as well).

    Again, we thought you and the cast were absolutely wonderful last night. We
    appreciate your hard work and talent, and wish you all the best.

    Regards,

    Roy and Denise Dodman

  6. Don Cox says:

    Hi, Frank. We just saw you perform at Teatro Zinzanni in Seattle last
    night. I was one of the lucky ones to compete for your favor as your heir. I
    would love to find out more about you and your career. Thanks!
    Don “Mr. Brady” Cox
    Seatte, WA.

  7. K. Shepard says:

    Dear Frank,

    We saw your performance last night – and needless to say – my face still hurt
    from laughing. We were the group of 10 very refined ladies that you were so
    kind to pose with for a picture.

    Don’t every change – I could watch you every night – what a treat!!

  8. […] as “a poor man’s Ricky Ricardo with a splash of Deam Martin in his soul” in his TZ  blog interview. Frank and friends usher in 2009 with a special New Year’s Eve package at Teatro […]

  9. Jon Horton says:

    Subject: Look at you!

    Dear Frank,
    Thanks for such a great performance on December 29th at Teatro Zinzanni. And the “General” comment to my suit with a medal and hat was a great moment to the evening, celebrating my wife’s birthday.

    I am looking forward to seeing you as The One, The Only Groucho this spring near our home in Bothell at the Northshore Center.

    I am a contemporary of yours, and have a wonderful love for all things Groucho. From the needlepoint Groucho pillow my mom made me when I was a kid to the nights sitting up watching You Bet Your Life reruns, it was a Marx Bros. childhood. Groucho and Ernie Kovacs were always an inspiration to me, and now, I am taking that love into doing improv myself… just one more reason I enjoyed your performance as Caesar – what an inspiration.

    Take care and again, thanks for a memorable performance.

    I’d love to stay, but I have to say… that I must be… gooooooing.

    Happy new year.
    Jon

  10. Winton Cossell says:

    “Look at you, so beautiful… Your nam?”

    Yes we did, we came and participated in your wonderful dinner performance on Friday night,1/23/09. There were 6 of us, two of whom have never heard of Teatro Zinnzanni or Frank Ferrante before. Now your show, its performers and especially you will be a part of their life memories as it has with us.

    You knocked our socks off. I remember Teresa (one of your 2 new fans) leaning over to me saying that her cheeks were hurting and her mouth was threatening to split open up to her ears from laughing so hard.

    Borrowing the words from P.T. Barnum, Teatro Zinnzanni was, for us on this night the “Greatest Show on Earth”.

    Please let me know when you will be doing Groucho again as you did up at Mount Baker Theater in Bellingham. I want to introduce some new people to your incredible talent in bringing him back to life, in my opinion, your greatest performance.

    Thank You!

    Fondly,
    Winton Cossel

  11. Peter Shank says:

    I think I’ve seen almost every TZ chef/host/whatever since 2004, and Frank is clearly in a class by himself. My favorite adlib line was “I’ll be on penicillin by the end of the night, ladies and gentlemen.” Priceless.

    Hail, Caesar!

  12. Caty Griesedieck says:

    Thank you for the most wonderful show of my life! Every detail, every color, every sound and every move is a delight. And Frank Ferrante is the crazy glue that holds it all together like a mosaic of fun…Bravo!

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